What Happens When the Unenlightened Make Education Policy

Ontario government logo representing its Ministry of EducationHigh school students across Ontario walked out of class Thursday and marched on Queen’s Park yesterday to protest changes to education policy announced recently by the Ford government. Their concerns include funding cuts–which are behind this week’s announcement that the government will eliminate about 3,500 teaching jobs–and increased class sizes. (School boards are predicting higher job losses, more in the range of 7,000, when class size increases take effect). Students also oppose the government’s plan to require four high school courses to be taken online, as well as cuts to post-secondary education that will see tuition cut by 10% but costs absorbed by colleges and universities, presumably through cuts to programs or services.

Why all the changes? Because kids lack “resiliency.” In a much-derided interview with CBC’s Metro Morning (linked to in the  middle of this article), Ontario’s Minister of Education repeatedly trumpeted the importance of building “resiliency” among students. She claimed that today’s students lack “coping skills” and, again, “resiliency,” and that larger class sizes will prepare them for the reality of post-secondary education and the world of work. (When asked in this interview where students who need extra help in these larger classes will get that assistance, she said their peers will step in to be “mentors” or “coaches.” Another useful job skill for those who can manage it. More resiliency!)

So it’s all about jobs. Doug Ford likes to say that Ontario is “open for business” and it seems that mantra applies to schools. In the Metro Morning interview, Thompson stated that the government’s number one priority is STEM fields and skilled trades “because that’s where the jobs lie.”

When asked about the arts, she said “it goes without saying” that arts are important, but does it really? I’d like to hear a clear statement from the government on this issue. With cutbacks in teaching positions and more emphasis on STEM and trades, where exactly will subjects like music and art fit? (I have the same worries about social sciences.) Her answer did not reassure me. She said there has to be a balance, that for her it’s “innate” (?), that kids graduating high school should have “an appreciation” for art and music “but, when it comes to the world of work, we need to make sure our students have the skills in the pathways that are providing jobs.” She then launched into a talk about jobs in skilled trades.

I agree fully that skilled trades are an important career path. For too long there has been a stigma attached to trades, a belief that trades are for the unintelligent and the truly smart kids go to university. It’s nonsense and I commend the government for trying to reduce the stigma and encourage more kids to consider skilled trades. It’s the rest of their policy that gives me pause.

The government’s plans are short on specifics–including their emphasis on e-learning for which there are some troubling questions, outlined in this excellent Ottawa Citizen article. Absent of details, we have only government talking points as a guide. What I am hearing in the words they choose is not a bold vision for education, but a belief that schools’ primary purpose is turning out the next generation of employees. If it’s a marketable job skill, it’s in. If not, forget about it. Teens are already under intense pressure to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and now we have a government that seems ready to stream them into particular job “pathways” even earlier.

It’s no surprise I guess. This is what happens when the unenlightened make education policy. Note that I did not say “uneducated.” A person’s “book learning” is not the issue–Doug Ford may be a high school dropout but his Minister of Education is a university graduate. By enlightenment, I mean a broad perspective, a sense that your opinions are not the only ones, and an understanding that you should consider all viewpoints before making decisions. You can have all the formal education in the world, or none at all, but if you lack enlightenment you will have a very narrow worldview. And that is the problem with Ford and his colleagues. Instead of an open mind, they have tunnel vision. They view everything through the lens of their own dogma and base policy solely on their ideology. Everything is black and white. Cell phones in classrooms–bad. Mandatory online learning–good. Comprehensive sex ed–bad. STEM skills–good. Arts–waste of time. Indigenous content in social studies–unnecessary and too expensive. Unions–bad, bad, bad. (For proof of that last point, see the astonishing accusations Thompson levelled at teachers’ unions in a press release issued after Thursday’s student walkout.)

A broad-based education provides the kind of enlightenment I’m talking about. Not everyone will absorb the lessons–our Minister of Education is proof of that–but the opportunity should be there. And this is what I fear will be missing after Doug Ford makes his changes. The government cannot limit kids in these crucial years of development by pushing them down a career path too early. Give them basic skills, yes–math and the financial literacy the government is talking about, some introduction to science and technology for those interested. But Ford and Thompson must not shortchange other subjects because they don’t see their value. For a lot of kids, those other subjects are where they discover their passion or find relief when the world gets to be too much. How many kids who struggle with subjects like math or science (like me) blossom when they unleash their creativity and realize they have talent in music, art, or writing? How many kids have their perspectives broadened in social science courses that teach them about the diversity of cultures and people in our communities and the wider world?

If Ford and Thompson had this wider worldview, they would see that there a lot of kids who do not succeed in STEM fields and have no affinity for trades. What about them?  What about the kids who haven’t yet figured out where their strengths and interests lie? What about kids who want to be social workers, lawyers, chefs, athletes, actors, writers, musicians, or–gasp–teachers? Where do they fit in a high school system where STEM and trades are the “number one priority”?

Education is about more than developing job skills. It’s also about teaching kids life skills so they can manage in an overwhelming world. Hard job skills will only take a person so far. What happens when the industry they’ve trained for changes or they are replaced by robots? Being shunted down a narrow path early in life will not help them when the jobs dry up.

If the government wants resilience, it needs to look at more than math and technology. It must ensure that schools focus on the experience of learning–teaching students how to learn, if you will–so they can adapt to rapid changes and have the confidence to take on new tasks and jobs when necessary. This notion of “learning how to learn” includes: lessons in how to think critically and evaluate information, listen to other viewpoints, and carefully consider all available evidence when making decisions; exposure to new ideas and perspectives so students can gain an appreciation for each other, see that their way is not the only way, and work together to solve problems; and the availability of a wide range of subjects so students can discover what inspires them and engages them in learning. STEM and trades can be part of this education, but so must arts and social sciences. One cannot come ahead of the other.

My fears may be unfounded, and we will not know how Ford’s proposed changes will look until the budget comes down this week, but I can’t escape the feeling that arts and social science programming–and students–will suffer in the end.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *